The year was 1952, a time when Calumet Farm was an unstoppable force. On the first Saturday in May, Hill Gail gave the Bluegrass dynasty its second Kentucky Derby in two years and third in the last five.
Yet the lasting significance of the 78th Derby was not the victory of the heavy favorite trained and ridden by Hall of Famers Ben Jones and Eddie Arcaro. In 1952, for the first time, network television let the country see America's Race live, via WHAS, CBS' affiliate in Louisville. The national rite of spring has never been the same.
That summer, an 18-year-old from Nebraska would take out his trainer's license, and like TV and the Derby, he's been in business ever since. At 71, Bob Holthus is still training thoroughbreds, continuing a tradition begun by his father, Paul. For the third consecutive year, he's in the Derby, and the highly regarded Lawyer Ron gives Holthus his best chance to finally get the roses on his fifth try.
"My dad bought his first horse the year I was born ," Holthus said. "That started him in the business and me, too. He and Bryan Wise taught me the profession. I never wanted to do anything else."
He never had to. Holthus saddled his first winner in 1952, a filly named Colleen at long-gone Columbus out in Nebraska. The next winter, he made his debut at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where he hasn't missed a meeting since and has won 11 training titles.
When asked about the secret to his success, Holthus will say "longevity" with a smile. Maybe it's because he keeps it simple.
"I've seen some ups and downs, so [the Derby] really isn't a lot of pressure," Holthus said. "It's kind of like the professor told the graduating class [at medical school]: Half the people are going to get well on their own, and don't kill the other half. So that's what we try to do, not mess him up."
Yet even after more than half a century of sending out winners, few outside the sport have heard of Holthus. By staying in the South and Midwest he's kept a low profile, despite being the all-time leader at Oaklawn and dominating meetings at Turfway Park, Arlington, Ellis Park, Detroit, Hawthorne and Louisiana Downs. He's had only one really big horse, Proper Reality, who took the 1988 Arkansas Derby and the 1989 Met Mile.
Unlike Proper Reality, who aired by about 15 lengths in his debut, Lawyer Ron was not a fast learner. He's won six in a row since last fall after going 1-for-8 to start his career.
"Proper Reality had a lot of talent, but the trouble with him was he was very unsound," Holthus said. "This horse is just the opposite. He's very sound, and you can do what you really want to do with him. I had to nurse Proper Reality from race to race. Because he's sound, it makes Lawyer Ron a lot better prospect for the Kentucky Derby."
With 14 starts, Lawyer Ron is by far the most experienced horse in the 132nd Derby. He's a throwback to when American thoroughbreds were bred to be strong and go long. In 1948, Calumet's immortal Citation swept the Triple Crown after starting 16 times before the Derby, including a final tuneup in the Derby Trial four days earlier. Those days are gone forever, with rare exceptions.
"Now all the horses in the United States are not really bred to go a mile and a quarter or a mile and a half," Holthus said. "Because the only way you can sell one, he's got to have speed. Fortunately with Lawyer Ron, the mare is by Lord Avie, so that gives him stamina. He's just a good athlete, and every now and then one of them will come along.
"He's very durable, and he bounces back after racing. Two days later, you wouldn't know he ever ran. So he's just one of a kind. I grant you that a lot of 3-year-olds, if you'd run them 14 times, they'd be back at the old farm somewhere."
It's been 18 years since Holthus had a 3-year-old this good. Proper Reality outran his 27-1 odds in the 1988 Derby, finishing fourth to the filly Winning Colors. Lawyer Ron is expected to be the second choice to Brother Derek on Saturday. If Lawyer Ron wins, nobody will be shocked. He worked in 58 seconds and change at Churchill Downs, so you know he likes the quirky track there, and he's used to big crowds.
"We had 72,000 for the Arkansas Derby, so Lawyer Ron's been through that, which might be an advantage over some of the horses," Holthus said. "A person who's never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby is in for a shock. With all the fans and the noise, it's really kind of a circus, so they have to have pretty good nerves to get through there."
The run to the first turn is insane, too, with perhaps 20 horses trying to get position and stay out of each other's way. Many are eliminated at the start or in the quarter-mile rodeo down the stretch for the first time. Holthus hopes his jockey, John McKee, will find the right path. McKee, 24, knows Churchill well and won a riding title there in 2004. The past two years the unusually tiny Ohioan (4 feet 9, 95 pounds) came in 13th for Holthus in the Derby, on Greater Good last year and Pro Prado in 2004.
"In the draw, [I'd like to be] somewhere in the middle of the field," Holthus said. "Although he has quite a bit of tactical speed, you'd hate to have to use it to get out of trouble in the first quarter-mile.
"This year it seems to be a really salty field. I really think it's going to be a hell of a Derby. I think it'll be tough to win it, and you're going to have to get some breaks and get them at the right time."
After all these years, maybe Holthus is due.
Kentucky Derby television coverage begins Saturday, May 6 at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports.